Guest column: Why it’s too early to support building a new school

  • Fort River Elementary School

Monday, March 18, 2019

The six listening sessions focusing on one the options — closing Fort River or Wildwood elementary schools and building a new 600-student school — simply did not provide enough information to evaluate it.

No other options were presented and critical information about how to fix Fort River was absent. Many people supporting other options felt cut out of the process. It wasn’t even clear to many of us why the Town Council and School Committee organized the listening sessions.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority requires towns to investigate at least three options in the feasibility process. The authority has never said Amherst has to pick one option now.

We have heard lots of questions about the option of building a new school, but we have little information. How much will the school cost? How much will it cost to build additions to another school to house the 140 of the 738 students now at Wildwood and Fort River? How long will it take to build the new school and additions?

Couldn’t a 600-student school become a 700-750-student school just by increasing class size or the number of classrooms? What does educational research show about student performance and school size — for 600-750-student schools and smaller schools? What is the research on the impact of the number of classes per grade (called “cohort”)?

If smaller schools benefit all students — and especially kids who struggle academically or those with special needs — isn’t a big school a negative? What are other negatives to this option?

Could the K-6 grade configuration be changed or dual-language program closed? What is the impact of closing Fort River or Wildwood schools on those school communities?

The Fort River Feasibility Committee and designer TSKP Associates have a very detailed 30-page presentation on six ways to fix Fort River. It includes different design options, draft cost estimates, and site information. It was not presented at the listening sessions.

Almost $250,000 of tax money was spent on this study requested by the School Committee. Omitting this information and information on any other options, was, from the outset, divisive. It excluded people interested in keeping our three small elementary schools open, ignoring their concerns.

The only information about this option was the opinion it is too expensive and would take too long. Until we know how a 600-student building will work when it isn’t big enough for current enrollments and where 140-plus other elementary students will go, we cannot know which option costs more or takes longer.

For example, recent Facility Use Advisory Board meetings show widely differing cost estimates for moving the sixth-graders to the middle school.

MSBA is not asking Amherst to pick an option now and MSBA regulations require all towns to carefully examine at least three options. MSBA regulations are clear: “The Preliminary Evaluation of Alternatives shall conclude with a list of at least three distinct alternatives (including at least one renovation and/or addition option that maximizes use of the existing facility) that are recommended for further development and evaluation during the Final Evaluation of Alternatives.” (Section 3.1.6)

We all support Amherst’s application to the MSBA (the “SOI”) and getting into the MSBA’s feasibility process. There is more than one option. But we think it is impossible to make a good choice for our elementary schools without more information, research and discussion of options by the School Committee, Town Council, and community. The MSBA feasibility process will give us time to do this.

Perhaps, the listening sessions can be the beginning of this discussion and process, even if it is a rocky start. Conversations around town and at listening sessions show we can reach consensus on principles, as the superintendent told us the MSBA wants to see.

Everyone supports better buildings and classrooms for our students. People want natural light, closed classrooms, and school buildings that work for all kids, especially those struggling academically, with special needs, hearing problems or trouble focusing.

There is strong support for K-6 schools. Many want the schools fixed quickly and want environmentally sustainable, low maintenance buildings. People expressed concerns about costs and high taxes. Uniformly, people want to be kept informed and want other community members informed.

We need to commit to talk and work together to fix our elementary schools by looking at all options

Andrea Battle is a retired teacher, Janet McGowan is an attorney, and Demetria Shabazz is a lecturer at WEB Du Bois Department of African American Studies at UMass and president of Amherst Media.